Under other circumstances, comments about Vice President Mike Pence made by Rep. Adam Schiff on Sunday morning would have seemed uncharitable at best, or malicious at worst. The California congressman, who serves as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that the leaders of US allies meeting with Pence in Europe can’t trust that what they hear from him reflects the intentions of the Trump administration.
Speaking from Berlin, where he was attending an annual conference on international security, Schiff said, “There’s a lot of concern here about just who speaks for the administration and certainly even when things -- when the vice president or others say the right things, they wonder, does the president stand behind this?”
Pence, also attending the conference, had delivered a speech two days earlier restating the commitment of the United States to the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance -- an organization President Trump had called “obsolete” during his campaign for the Oval Office.
Pence had arrived in Munich just days after it was revealed that Trump had waited 14 days before informing his own vice president that Pence had been lied to by former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn about discussions with a Russian diplomat. The incident raised questions about whether or not Pence was actually part of the administration’s inner circle.
So, listeners were wary when he announced, “Today, on behalf of President Trump, I bring you this assurance: the United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to this transatlantic alliance.”
He added an assurance that the US will stand up to Russian aggression, saying, “Know this: the United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground, which as you know, President Trump believes can be found.”
Schiff described the reaction of the audience, made up of prime ministers, defense ministers, and other senior leaders, as “subdued.” Reporting from Munich, the Reuters news service agreed, calling Pence’s reception “tepid.”
“Wait a minute,” said host Jonathan Karl. “Vice President Pence said quite clearly in that speech that the United States stands with NATO. You’re saying that people didn’t buy it?”
“Yes. And [US Ambassador to the United Nations] Nikki Haley said that, that we don’t recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But that still begs the question, is the vice president or Nikki Haley really speaking for the president?” Schiff said.
“I think certainly here at the conference when Mike Pence said that we want NATO members to pay up, they knew, in that case, he was speaking for the president. But when he talked about American commitment to NATO, when he talked about the commitment to Europe, I think there are still profound questions about whether he is, in those cases, really speaking for the president or speaking for himself.”
Schiff’s comments could easily be dismissed as a partisan effort to undermine the administration, except that, based on comments from other leaders in attendance, they seem to be accurate.
“We are waiting for actions,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said, according to the Associated Press. “We only know what the media has reported and the statements that we've got. Now we are waiting for actions of the new government of Donald Trump.”
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said that he spoke personally with Pence and other US officials, and came away certain only that they were expressing their own intentions -- but not necessarily the administration’s.”
"I have no doubts that the American vice president, and also the defense minister, will do everything to take responsibility within NATO as in the past, and I don't think there is a big argument inside the American government,” he said
Pressed by reporters to say whether or not he thought Trump would stand behind the vice president’s comments, he said, “Since I haven't spoken to him, I can only say what I discussed with Mr. Pence — I did that and there are no doubts there.”
Similar uncertainty appeared to follow Pence when he made his way to Brussels on Monday for a meeting with top leaders of the European Union. During the election, Trump had cheered the vote by the United Kingdom to break off from the EU and had suggested that further deterioration of the union was likely.
In remarks there, Pence stressed the need for continued close cooperation between the US and the EU. His words were met with a polite wait-and-see reception.
“After such a positive declaration, both the Europeans and the Americans must simply practice what they preach,” said European Council President Donald Tusk.
Pence’s credibility, particularly his promise to “hold Russia accountable” had taken another blow the night before with the revelation by The New York Times of a back-channel plan to lift sanctions on Russia in exchange for unspecified concessions from Moscow in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The war, which started when Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula, has cost an estimated 10,000 lives.
However, according to The Times, the deal was developed by Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, Felix H. Sater, a Russian-American businessman with past criminal convictions and ties to both Trump and organized crime, and Andrii V. Artemenko, a Ukrainian politician who claims the current president in Kiev is corrupt and who has no authority from his government to negotiate a peace deal.
There is no indication that Trump himself has seen the plan or approved of it in any way. However, the news that people close to the administration appear to be freelancing on the most explosive issue in Europe right now can’t be reassuring to US allies in the region.
And it can’t make Mike Pence’s mission to sooth them much easier, either.